It seems that Ron Mueck, in a career spanning barely a decade, has become sculptor laureate of the human condition. From the moment he showed Dead Dad, that piteously half-sized corpse, so supernaturally real, over which a great soul seemed to hover, he has given startling form to the mystery and anguish of existence. Because his figures are so stupendously lifelike he is often accused of mere skill, though it's a skill unparalleled in art history. But which modern sculptures, from his newborns to his derelicts, have drawn such pity and compassion from the public?
Mueck's soaring popularity appears to rile his critics, who denounce him as corny or simple. This is partly because he represents life's great staging posts — birth, death, adolescence, loss — and partly, one suspects, because his background in model-making and special effects (and, possibly, his first work, a spiky little imp) allow some people to equate him with Disney.
His is a narrative art, to be sure, and entirely accessible. Unlike the hyper-real figures of Duane Hanson, those camera-slung tourists and blue-collar workers who keep themselves to themselves, maintaining their otherness and inner identity, Mueck's people offer themselves to interpretation very readily. But although meaning is their raison d'etre — they're exemplars, like so many characters in fiction or drama — they may also have extraordinary force of personality.
Take Ghost, a lanky pubescent girl backed up against the wall in her bathing suit, agonized at such cringing exposure. Her skin is painfully mottled, her forearms downier than she might have hoped and everything about her inspires tenderness: the desire to supply a towel, to tuck back loose hairs, to protect her from her own physicality. Her head is inclined as if sensing your presence, the very paradigm of awkwardness, in short. But she holds fast and her eyes imply endurance. It's not her shame but her courage that strikes.
Ghost would tower above the tallest adult. Two Women — a pair of tightly permed old ladies in slack stockings — are not much bigger than infants. Mueck's figures, unlike Hanson's, are never life-size and these enlargements and miniaturizations are crucial to his purpose. Inner emotion is dramatized by outer scale and this is often counterintuitive. So the girl's vast size makes her not powerful but even more vulnerable, while the two old ladies, seized with tremendous spite, are not to be mistaken for dear little dolls.
The biggest work in the retrospective at the Royal Scottish Academy (RSA), Edinburgh, Scotland, is 3m high — a wild-haired giant on a stool. But this man is naked and flinching as if terrified by your presence. Or by suddenly finding himself here, threatened, viewed, confined: he clings to his stool for protection.
It is, you could say, among the most site-specific sculptures ever made: a man caught in continuous reaction to the here and now and wholly characterized — cowed and even reduced, despite his size — by the circumstances. Viewed from behind, The Wild Man appears tremendously powerful, his back a wall of muscle. Circling, you may coincide with the focus of his gaze and get the shock, no less powerful for being technically predictable, of discovering he is far more frightened than you. Mueck makes the most of sculpture's three dimensions; in this case, the narrative, the back-story, so to speak, changes as you move.